6 Tips for Exciting Fireworks Photos

You can find all sorts of complicated advice for taking good pictures of fireworks--but these six simple tips tell you everything you need to know.

Simple Tips for Fireworks Photos

Every Independence Day, my dog cowers as the neighborhood erupts with pops and bangs--but the rest of us look forward to days like July 1 (in Canada) and July 4 (in the United States) for the bright, joyous fireworks. There's nothing quite like the thrill of shooting summertime fireworks. Done right, fireworks photos convey the action and excitement of the real thing. Read on for tips about capturing breathtaking fireworks photos this summer. (And for general advice on taking photos after dark, read "Taking Good Handheld Photos at Night.")

1. Use a Camera With Manual Controls

You can use almost any digital camera to capture fireworks, as long as it offers either some manual exposure control (so that you can dial in the right ISO, aperture, and shutter speed settings) or a Fireworks mode. Many point-and-shoot cameras are fine, or you might prefer an advanced compact camera like one of the models on our Top-Rated Megazoom Cameras chart. If you have a choice, though, I recommend using a digital SLR or interchangeable-lens camera, such as one on our Top DSLR and Interchangeable-Lens Cameras for Image Quality chart. The Canon EOS Rebel T3i (pictured here) is number one on our chart right now.

2. Use a Tripod

It's essential to use a tripod for fireworks photos. Since you need to set the exposure for at least a second (and more likely several seconds), it's just not practical to get good photos without locking your camera onto the top of a tripod. No matter what type of camera you use, you'll need some sort of support to capture a sharp image. An inexpensive tripod or monopod will do--nothing fancy. Keep the tripod head loose so that you can move the camera around to frame the exploding fireworks.

3. Use the Right Exposure Setting

The most important rule for shooting fireworks: Use a slow shutter speed so that you can record those colorful light trails. If you have a point-and-shoot camera, you might want to dial in the Fireworks mode. This setting gives you a somewhat slow shutter speed (probably about a half second). Even better than Fireworks mode, though, is a compact camera's manual exposure mode, or a digital SLR. You can experiment with shutter speeds and aperture settings, and you can try longer shutter speeds for more-dramatic photos. This shot required an exposure of 2.5 seconds, which would have been impossible without a tripod.

4. Use the Shutter to Control Light Trails

You can make the light trails longer by increasing the shutter speed. You might want to start small (around a second), but you can shoot really long exposures (8 seconds or more) to fill the sky with multiple fireworks. I used a 6-second exposure at f/5.6 to capture this busy scene.

5. Use the Aperture to Control Exposure

If you're new to manual mode, you might feel overwhelmed by all the settings--ISO, shutter speed, and aperture--and not know where to start. Here's what you should do: Set the ISO at 100 (or its lowest value) and the shutter speed at about 1 or 2 seconds. Then take some pictures, varying the aperture setting. The smaller the f-number you dial in, the brighter your fireworks will be. If your photos are getting overexposed, increase the f-number. If the photos are too dark, shoot at a smaller f-number. This scene is the result of a 4-second exposure at f/8.

6. Set Your Focus to Infinity

Don't forget about the focus. If your camera is in Fireworks mode, it will automatically set the lens to focus on infinity. But if you're handling the exposure details manually, set the focus at infinity and leave it there. The fireworks will all be far enough away that infinity is the right setting. If you leave the camera in autofocus, you'll no doubt find yourself missing shots while the camera "searches" for the right focus.

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